Sloppy Concepts

Dogmatists hate sloppy concepts. They know that a concept refers to a range of similars, and they think the concept is sloppy if the edges of that range are not well defined. Ayn Rand said that the concept is sloppy if the essential is not well defined.

To see the importance of this distinction, ask about the purpose of concepts.

An animal has all it can do to handle its own miniscule part of the universe. It can attend to just a few things at a time. If its natural reactions fail even for a moment, it dies. That's why road kill is so common along the highway.

A human without concepts would be in the same situation. There would be no way to see the overall picture; it would be lost in a sea of particulars. Concepts fix this problem by reducing the units. By thinking "man," you take account of every man who ever lived, who lives now, and who ever will live. You reduce all those units to one: man. You define what that unit includes by finding the essential: that characteristic which all men have, and nothing else has. That's rationality. Man is the rational animal.

Scientists argue endlessly about the limits of this concept. Does this fossil evidence represent an ancient man, or something on the way to evolving into a man? Was early man truly rational, or "pre-rational?" Will man evolve into something "post-rational," and will that still be called a man? Should humans born without the ability to become rational still be called man?

The question is: do these arguments interfere with the purpose of the concept, which is to make it possible for me to contemplate not just you, you, and you, but everybody everywhere? The answer is: not in the slightest. For most purposes, it is not the limits of the range included in a concept that is important, but the essential. Not where does the range begin and end precisely, but what range are we talking about? Once we have done the overall thinking, then we can worry about the nit picks.

The danger is to worry about sloppiness at the edges of the concept, and get careless about the essential. If you define man as "the tool-using animal," you get lost in confusion because of all the other tool-using animals. You end up saying, "Oh, you know what I mean!" There's no use worrying about the limits of a concept if you don't first know the essential.

Is that a harmless confusion? Well, Hitler said that his subjects were free Germans, able freely to serve the state. He worried about who was really a German and who wasn't, while keeping the essential of freedom—absence of coercion—as sloppy as he could. A big public argument at present is over the limits of "assault weapons," while the essential of all weapons—self defense—becomes sloppier and sloppier.

To avoid sloppy thinking, avoid sloppy concepts by getting the essential right. Then you can handle borderline cases when necessary by using the essential as a standard.

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